Bell and Walsh steal the limelight
Irish riders at different ends of the scale triumph on foreign forays
On a weekend that might otherwise have lacked genuine intrigue from an Irish angle, two contrasting stories provided unexpectedly engaging narratives.
Granted, yesterday's Curragh card offered plenty of quality, likewise the Group One fixture in Deauville. In the greater scheme of things though, it threatened to be a pretty run-of-the-mill couple of days.
Then a vivacious new star shone brightly over Ascot and a sparkling older gem was sighted for a first time in Australia. In Berkshire, Samantha Bell, or Sammy Jo as she likes to be known, stole the show, while it was Ruby Walsh that caused a stir Down Under.
A week ago, neither would have envisaged the situation in which they found themselves, it being Wednesday before weekend plans were confirmed. Both benefited from the hand of fate and others' misfortune en route to creating little bits of history - Bell substituting for an injured Cathy Gannon on the girls' Shergar Cup team and Walsh replacing a suspended Steve Pateman in Australia.
In the early hours of yesterday morning Irish time, Walsh, the most distinguished jump jockey in the world, found himself on duty against lesser mortals at a relatively obscure destination, Ballarat not even the natural home of the Australian Grand National.
Had it gone ahead on its original rescheduled date of July 26, the opportunity would never have prevented itself to Walsh. As it was, he was invited to partner the local hero Bashboy in his bid for an unprecedented third success in the $250,000 (€170,000) race.
The horse's trainer Ciaron Maher made an enterprising statement of intent by seeking to fly Walsh halfway around the world. Fortune favoured the brave as Walsh seized the day with characteristic aplomb.
In the other instance, you had a comparatively unknown jockey in Bell - albeit a rider in form - partnering middle-of-the-road horses against vastly more experienced riders at one of Flat racing's grandest and most familiar venues.
The Shergar Cup has never appealed to me and many racing fans have never warmed to it, chiefly because the standard of racing is so uninspiring.
Sure, it's great to see the likes of Yutake Take, Pat Smullen and Jamie Spencer rub shoulders, but the team concept is counter-intuitive. That said, it has a novelty appeal and an attendance of 30,416 would suggest it is a contrived initiative well worth persisting with in the current climate, much like the Ladies' Day promotions here in Ireland.
Bell won two races on Saturday, and she will have won over plenty of the target market. You couldn't have watched events unfold at Ascot and not be smitten by her infectious smile and unbridled joy as she excelled on a winning team that included Hayley Turner and Canadian Emma-Jayne Wilson.
Ever since her time with Kevin Prendergast, Bell's talent has been clear. However, it is only recently that the 24-year-old Templepatrick, Co Antrim native has gained some real momentum, resulting in her getting the late call-up for Saturday.
The first apprentice to compete in the Shergar Cup on a day when the average age of the other 11 riders was 36, she absolutely owned the place. She was a focus of attention all afternoon. Rather than hide, though, she embraced the fanfare, riding intelligent races on Royal Signaller and Shell Bay to earn the Silver Saddle accolade.
She had never ridden for either of the horses' trainers Michael Appleby or Richard Hannon and had only a couple of outside rides at Ascot before, but all of a sudden she was the lynchpin of a team that created history, as it was the girls' first Shergar Cup victory.
"It's definitely the best day in my career," she beamed after being drenched in champagne. "Absolutely amazing. I just can't believe the opportunity I've been given and to have two winners and win the Silver Saddle is outstanding. It'll take a lot to better this one."
While Bell still lacks some composure in a finish, she lit the place up, and it was impossible to witness her glee and not get caught up in the carnival vibe. Given the platform it gave her to showcase her skills, organisers would do well to make a place available for an apprentice every year.
Likewise, anyone who watched Walsh's stirring victory on Bashboy couldn't fail to have been enthralled, and the slightly histrionic commentary that goes with the video that can readily be found online adds to the dramatics. Most of us had never heard of Bashboy until last week.
Now he has newfound global fame at 12 years of age thanks to Walsh's whistle-stop venture. The first horse to win the Grand National three times having been second in 2014, his feat has echoes of Red Rum about it. It is probably best to leave that comparison there, but no horse had carried 11st 10lb to victory since 1957, so he is a fair animal. Walsh galvanised his willing partner to get back up late by half a length. He has now conquered the original National at Aintree, as well as the Irish, Scottish and Welsh equivalents, not to mention his famous success aboard Blackstairmountain in Japan's Nakayma Grand Jump.
Mind, it was the first time he ever won a National having started from stalls.
"What a horse," Walsh gushed. "I'm over the moon that I was asked to come, even happier that he won. It's brilliant to be here.
"As a jump jockey you don't get many opportunities to ply your trade abroad.
"I'm certainly glad that Willie Mullins encouraged me to come and my wife was able to organise three kids at sharp notice to be looked after. It has been a great day."
In the context of where their respective careers are at, Bell's chance was of a similarly golden hue. Both riders deserve enormous credit for ensuring fairytale endings to the most unlikely of storylines.
Ryan and Spencer excel abroad
Ruby Walsh wasn't the only Irish rider to enjoy success at Ballarat.
Tom Ryan, champion conditional rider in 2005 and successful at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival aboard Michael O'Brien's JP McManus-owned Kadoun, drove Vatuvei to victory in the JJ Houlahan Hurdle.
Walsh rode Arch Fire in the $100,000 race and finished fourth to Vatuvei, which is trained by Peter Moody of Black Caviar fame. "He's on my turf now," Ryan quipped of his old friend. "It's good to get one up on him." Having emigrated in 2011, Tuam-born Ryan (31), who made his own flying visit to ride at Galway, is well established in Australia. Interestingly, his big-race haul includes the 2011 Grand National on Man Of Class, which was also trained by Ciaron Maher.
Jamie Spencer, who, after riding his second winner at Ascot on Saturday came out with the immortal line to his ex-wife and reporter Emma Spencer live on Channel 4 that he had "seen more of you today than when we were married," netted a Group One win in Germany. At his brilliant best on the progressive Luca Cumani-trained Second Step, Spencer got the four-year-old up late in the 125th Grosser Preis von Berlin in Hoppergarten and the Irish St Leger is now on the agenda.
In France, Gordon Lord Byron ran a blinder to be third to Muhaarar (evens fav) in the Prix Maurice de Gheest. It was a third Group One win for Charlie Hills' Paul Hanagan-ridden charge, reaffirming the impression that the very best of the three-year-old colts are an outstanding crew. Gleneagles is included in that bracket, though it is beginning to look like a meeting with the Derby hero Golden Horn in the International at York next week will be swerved.
Aidan O'Brien indicated a tilt at the Prix Jacques le Marois over a mile back at Deauville next Sunday could be the preferred target, provided the ground is decent.
Cluskey back in the winners
Peter Cluskey saddled his first winner since 2013 when Ciankyle capitalised on the last-flight blunder of Carlyan to score at Downpatrick.
"They are scarce!" the Balbriggan handler quipped of the Mark Bolger-ridden winner afterwards.
Tweet of the weekend
Cathy Gannon (@cathygannon353)
Can't help but feel gutted but hats off to the girls and @SamanthaBell23 showing talent against world class jockeys
The proud Dub, sidelined by a collarbone injury, acknowledges her Shergar Cup-winning colleagues.
1 Number of Irish-trained winners in Britain on Saturday, Johnny Feane's 3/1 shot Asian Wing the only one of eight runners to score for Daniel Tudhope at Ayr. Adrian Keatley, Lee Smyth and Prunella Dobbs are responsible for an aggregate six runners at the Scottish track today.